Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David Solway, the award-winning author of over twenty-five books of poetry, criticism, educational theory, and travel. He is a contributor to magazines as varied as the Atlantic, the Sewanee Review, Books in Canada, and the Partisan Review. He is the author of the book, The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity. He is currently working on two follow-up books to The Big Lie. A collection of of essays, entitled Occupied Israel, is now being readied for the press and a second political/polemical volume, Living in the Valley of Shmoon, is rapidly nearing completion.
FP: David Solway, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Solway: Thanks, Jamie. Nice to be back.
FP: Let’s begin with the invasive threat of Islam. You refer to it often in your writing. Tell us what you suggest we do about it.
Solway: Know the enemy. Nothing can be done without informed understanding. The Islamic upsurge—note that I don’t say “Islamist,” the politically correct way of avoiding the issue—which severely threatens our way of life, thrives upon Western ignorance, especially of the Koran. The larger, Medinese portion of the Koran prescribes rather definitively against the non-believer, the infidel and the heretic. Its proscriptions cannot easily be moderated, ignored or merely wished away, just as the history of Islam cannot be scumbled under a palimpsest of readerly good intentions or ostensible scholarly impartiality. Very few of us, for example, have ever bothered to study the Koran, a sine qua non in the world we now inhabit. At best, this leads only to embarrassing moments, as when so prominent a writer and intellectual as Jorge Luis Borges lays it down that there are no references to camels in the Koran—he obviously skipped surah 88:18. At worst, camels or no camels, we sign our own death warrants. It is equally important, as it should go without saying, to consult knowledgeable authorities on the subject of Islam, of whom Eric Ormsby, Martin Kramer, Emmanuel Sivan, Efraim Karsh, Robert Irwin and Bernard Lewis are among the most reliable.
FP: So lack of knowledge of Islam puts us at a distinct disadvantage?
Solway: Yes. Regrettably, our illiteracy in this field is truly enormous, especially among our political elites, intelligentsia and media types who seem to have no awareness whatsoever, for example, of the Islamic doctrine of Mukawama (perpetual war), in which Muslims may sign truces and cease-fires with their enemies in order to attack at a later date when conditions are ripe, and treaties are considered as valid only for a maximum of ten years. Innumerable such instances of treaty violation, both great and small, have been recorded dating back to the source event, the ten-year Treaty of Hudabiyah in 628, broken by Muhammad two years later. This tactic has been long embedded in Islamic tradition—and, indeed, was referenced by Yasser Arafat in an Arabic speech dealing with the Oslo Accords. The Egyptian breach of diplomatic agreements with Israel in December 2007 to keep the Rafah crossing closed to Palestinians in order to prevent terrorists from travelling to Iran and Lebanon for military training is only the latest illustration of such institutional bad faith. We now see where that has led to.
FP: OK, point taken. What other obstacles do you see that prevent us from responding effectively to the challenge?
Solway: Well, one thing is for sure. If we are to have any chance of surviving this “war of the worlds,” we must also learn to know ourselves. While Islam is and will continue to be a major problem for the West—to put it mildly—far more dangerous than our misunderstanding of Islam is the pervasive ignorance and misprision of our own civilization, which I fear may be undergoing its precipitous denouement as it prepares for terminal breakup.
And let us not deceive ourselves, the peril is great indeed. In a time of moral inversion, one might say, if I can put it this way, that a vacuum abhors nature, and the vacuum of the Western intellect in the reductive era in which we live refuses to be filled by facts, by the logic of events, by palpable realities, by common sense or by the obvious nature of things.
On the contrary, the spiritual vacancy which has become our home is replete with phantoms and delusions that substitute for the genuine values that have sustained the best part of our civilization: for pragmatic and laborious national progress, the chimera of transnational supremacy which implies a new kind of statist imperium; for negotiating the Hobbesian world in which we must somehow find our way, Martha Nussbaum’s utopian fantasy of the “community of human beings in the entire world”; for the inalienable rights of man, a multicultural solicitude for barbaric ideas and backward practices; for the concept of truth, the acid of postmodern relativity; for authentic faith, crude ideologies; for meaningful civil arbitration, an activist judiciary which strives to supersede the legislative branch of government; for the belief in institutional probity, the corrupt United Nations and the politically-motivated International Court of Justice in the Hague; for the free marketplace of ideas, the decadent, agenda-driven modern university; for an impartial press, a largely bigoted media network with a distinct political mission; for candid and scrupulous language, the lip-salve of political correctness; for the manly virtues of heroism and steadfastness, cowardice masking as reasonable accommodation; for schooled thought, febrile emotionalism, and for stoic maturity, indulgent sentimentality; for entrepreneurial innovation, the dead hand of bureaucratic stagnation; for the patient study of history, the figments of received opinion; for men and women of real substance and courage, a jaundiced and appeasement-prone crowd of politicians, artists and intellectuals; and for the ideal of tolerance, a rampant and never-dying antisemitism.
We no longer abide in W.H. Auden’s “low dishonest decade” but, far more extensively, in a low dishonest epoch, as “waves of anger and fear/Circulate over the bright/And darkened lands of the earth.” Auden’s poem is entitled “ September 1, 1939 .” After September 11, 2001 , Auden’s pronouncement bodes truer than ever: “Mismanagement and grief:/We must suffer them all again.”
FP: But what about moderate or West-leaning Muslims? Can they not be recruited into the struggle?
Solway: One would like to think so, but thus far they have been spectacularly ineffective, so one must really wonder. Martin Amis and Ayaan Hirsi Ali plainly aren’t holding their breath in their writings on the Islamic issue. As Philip Hitti remarked in his masterful History of the Arabs, with respect to the entrenching of the faith in Medina, “Then and there, Islam came to be what the world has ever recognized it to be—a militant polity.” I suspect that Hitti is right and that Islam will, of necessity, remain in a relation of confrontation with the Western mode of existence: violence against the heathen is built into its sacraments and hermeneutics. Both moderate Muslims and Western liberals, looking at the world through rose-tinted cataracts, have, in a sense, bundled with the terrorists, but the bed they share is mined with explosives. In trying to demonstrate their good will and liberal open-mindedness, they cannot bring themselves to confront the reality of a faith that nourishes terror in its textual heartland. We need to understand the kinetics in play here. Most moderate Muslims and their Western supporters have have largely decided to ignore or to downplay the call for the eradication of enemies that is embedded in sacred book and auxiliary text—a call which can be revived and amplified at any time. And this is one of those times.
FP: In your poetry, you are now also developing a new persona, an Israeli poet you’ve named Israel ben Haim. Can you tell us more about him? Explain this clearly to our readers.
Solway: I’ve long maintained that politics and poetry generally don’t mix, which I believe the recent poetic tradition well exemplifies. There are exceptions, of course—Horace and Martial in the classical age, W.H. Auden and George Seferis in our own—but these are of the kind that prove the rule. I suspect there is something of the fascist in the poet’s soul, which makes sense when it comes to imposing strict hegemony over words on the page, but is usually disastrous when it comes to imposing strict control over people in the world.
The danger is extrapolation, from the imaginative realm of poetry to the pragmatic sociopolitical world, always a temptation. This caveat applies both to the Left and the Right. Modernist poets, even among the illuminati, those like Eliot, Pound, Yeats and Stevens, travelled toward the Far Right: their politics were corrupt and their poetry also tended to suffer when treating of political subjects.
FP: But not only toward the Right, you say.
Solway: No. In the contemporary moment, poets have mainly reversed the direction, moving to the Left and endorsing positions along a spectrum from outright antisemitism to pro-Islamic infatuations to strident anti-Americanism to slanderous diatribes against the Conservative outlook and tradition. And their verse has been irreparably damaged as a result. Look at the execrable trash Harold Pinter has produced in his poetry. Sniff the garbage that Amir Baraka, Poet Laureate of New Jersey, is churning out. Read and wince at the sentimental drivel we find in Maya Angelou. Consult what I’ve elsewhere called the most embarrassingly weak and egomaniacal poetry anthology ever brought out by a reputable publisher—I mean Sam Hamill’s cabaret-light and melodrama-heavy Poets Against the War volume. Read and weep.
FP: So how do you handle this dilemma in your own poetry?
Solway: As you know from my prose writings, I am deeply engaged in the political affairs of the day and have taken a strong stance against the Leftist ideology that is bringing us ever closer to cultural ruin and civilizational decline. It is almost impossible, if not disingenuous, to keep these convictions out of the poetry I write; but at the same time, as I’ve just pointed out, I recognize the risk of contamination.
The solution to this dilemma seemed to me to project a “new” personality, this fellow I call Israel ben Haim, and write not only out of myself but through the mental lens of another poet, hoping to acquire a prophylactic distance in the process, to interpose a linguistic and conceptual filter between “his” work and mine, and to monitor “his” poems via a critical telescopic sight, so to speak. At any rate, it’s an effort to keep myself honest and my poetry clean.
In the balagan (disorder, shambles) of the Israeli poetry scene, Israel ben Haim represents a special case. Neither an outright Zionist singing the virtues of kibbutz and moshav, nor a religious enthusiast flourishing a biblical warrant for a Greater Israel, nor a messianic radical lobbying for the dissolution of the body politic, nor a Left-wing sympathizer sharing a common platform with his revanchist Palestinian counterparts, I see ben Haim as perhaps the most stubbornly individual of the country’s poets. His work is actuated by two major themes or impulses which may, at first reading, seem rigorously incompatible: a strong political passion which manifests as militant patriotism for the state of Israel and a lyrical prepossession expressed as a romantic engagement with a mysterious Muse figure named Rosa . Perhaps the best comparison of his style and range of themes is with the Hebrew laureate and national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, who wrote “engaged” political poems in a neo-prophetic mode while at the same time composing private love lyrics and semi-mystical effusions.
For ben Haim (and for me), the poet’s task is synthesis, the striving to achieve an ever-elusive integrity, in both senses of the word: singleness of intention and moral rectitude, volatile as these may be. Whether he addresses the political realm or the romantic, the emphasis is always on harmony, on a vision of oneness, steadfastness and fidelity to a higher purpose. In this sense, a woman called Rosa is also a country called Israel , and both are embodiments of the Shekinah, the female emanation of the Divine who, in ben Haim’s poetic cosmology, has gone astray and needs to be reminded of a prior mission and resolve.
And by a trick of serendipity, the two coalesce in his proper name, the etymology of which is “he (or one) who wrestles with God.” (Ben Haim is fond of quoting the famous line of Friedrich Hölderlin: “But where the danger is, grows the saving power also.”) The struggle is to realize a preordained selfhood. The woman must learn to be true to her essential nature as wife, mother and companion, as archaic and patriarchal as this may sound; the country must come to resemble its archetype as the site of redemptive peoplehood. The love of one is, in the last analysis, identical to the love of the other—the love of origins. Ben Haim’s is clearly a conservative project, but for this poet the conservative disposition is about as radical as it can get in a centrifugal world that has lost its bearings and its memory. The impetus here is very different from that which animates my just-released volume, The Properties of Things: from the Poems of Bartholomew the Englishman, where my primary concern was with language. Israel ben Haim is preoccupied with the nature of the self in a socially and politically disintegrating world.
FP: The title of your political work-in-progress Living in the Valley of Shmoon prompts the obvious question about what "shmoon" could possibly signify. And this is central to our understanding of the terror war. Please explain.
Solway: Reflecting on our post-Enlightenment condition, I recalled the cartoonist Al Capp, creator of the L’il Abner comic strip and inventor of a species of roly-poly, pure-minded, eleemosynary critters called shmoos, denizens of the Valley of Shmoon, who were able and willing to transform themselves into chicken dinners and other delectables to satisfy the appetites of the hungry folk around them. Shmoos, unfortunately, do not constitute a finite resource set, but proliferate in such numbers as to undermine the welfare of society, rendering hard work unnecessary and the reality principle obsolete. They are not, strictly speaking, bad, but as one of the comic strip’s characters, Ol’ Man Mose, warned, they are bad for humanity “because they are so good.”
They recognize no enemies and, even as they are about to be exterminated, offer no resistance. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” as Edmund Burke is reputed to have said. One recalls, too, C. S. Lewis’ remark in Mere Christianity: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep…but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” So much for the Nanny state! But the current situation has been infernally compounded, for the ideological shmoos of the day seem determined to feed a hungry and insatiable enemy. When “good men” actively conspire with those who would undo them, when the missionaries eagerly jump into the bubbling pot, the end is surely in the offing.
According to our contemporary shmoos, there are two cognate approaches for dealing with the Islamic terrorists at the door. The first is to run down our culture and assume the blame for what has been inflicted on us—maybe the killers will forgive us. The second is to talk to our assailants, to respect their motives, to understand their resentments and to improve their economic prospects: fine words, empathy and a flow of dollars will do the trick. Although this strategy has failed miserably with Western-style dictatorships and terror regimes, and although many of the terrorists and their supporters hail from backgrounds of affluence and privilege, the Left insists against all the evidence that its policies and recommendations will succeed with the jihadis and their host governments, who must be relishing the free pass they have been given. Be nice, the theory goes, and they will be nice back.
Show understanding, and they will respond, not with violence but with gratitude. One remembers Einstein’s definition of insanity as repeating the same experiments and expecting different results. And, of course, as we extend the hand of supplication, we must not forget to keep inveighing against the moral cretinism and venality of the West, in the hope of gaining the respect of our adversaries while fumigating our own history. We must enrol our students in Peace Studies programs and teach them the subtleties of the “deep culture” approach, enabling them to see that our “enemies” are only expressing the fundamental traditions and postulates of their cultures, which are generally understood to be benign or at least neutral. For the professional temporizers of the Left, it is our own culture which is warped and depraved and therefore a licit object of the rest of the world’s hatred. Terrorism is not terrorism but justified vengeance. Plainly, this is not a good time for sense and substance as the rhetoric of vacancy gusts to windy velocities.
And that is where we find ourselves today. Not in the Valley of Kidron where idols are burned, but in the Valley of Shmoon where they are worshipped. Not in the Valley of Salt where King David won great victories, but in the Valley of Shmoon where we will suffer great losses.
FP: Could you name some of those you regard as shmoos?
Solway: They would fill an entire telephone directory. I’ll content myself with a particular bête noir of mine, Karen Armstrong. In her Islam: A Short History, she speaks of the “fear and despair” at the heart of fundamentalist irruptions that need to be met—not with the “power” or “force” that aims at defeating or containing an enemy but with the “liberating” influence of “understanding” that, in effect, allows that enemy to vitiate the very ideals and institutions that are the social as well as spiritual bulwarks of Western civilization. “Western people must become aware that it is in their interests…that Islam remains healthy and strong,” she avers. We must refrain from viewing Islam as “the enemy of democracy and decent values” and welcome this dignified and cultivated faith into the moral edifice of the West. This is a prescription for disaster and speaks more to the sanitizing naiveté of much Western scholarship and thought than to the real dilemma which confounds us. As she pedals her bicycle over the moon, it seems the passage of time has done nothing to temper Armstrong’s enthusiasm. Her more recent panegyric, Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, gives the impression of having been written by someone looking at history through the eye-grille of a burka. It is not only the bombers who are suicidal.
FP: Overall, in much of your writing, it appears that the West is quite unprepared to fight our enemy. Is there, in your view, any hope in this conflict we face?
Solway: Well, there’s always hope, or otherwise why go on struggling, turning tragedy into farce? But one would not be candid or realistic if one failed to note that the situation is pretty dismal. We are in the midst of a real war with an implacable adversary and that war is gradually and inexorably approaching our shores again. 9/11 was only the opening salvo. We need to understand that, although the moon may be waning on diverse Islamic national flags, Islam’s star, also represented on many of these flags, is clearly rising.
We need to see that our very civilization is threatened and that, for too many years now, as I argued in The Big Lie, we have practised the rites of evasion, craving asylum in conciliation, sophistry and equivocation. The macular degeneration of the Western mind is well advanced. We have succumbed to that peculiar form of intellectual myopia that Richard Wolin in The Seduction of Unreason describes as a “subconscious ‘will to nonknowledge’: a desire to keep at bay an awareness of unsettling historical complicities, facts, and events.”
FP: So crystallize where the hope is. The picture you paint is certainly a bleak one.
Solway: A few maverick thinkers may be our last hope toward the recovery of the genuinely Liberal vision of individual autonomy, historical filiation, moral courage and the rule of common sense. These represent one of the few encouraging signs that we, or some of us, may be beginning to rethink ourselves, installing a kind of intellectual Symantec network or ideological V-chip to protect against the conceptual virus of the Left: books like Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, Oriana Fallaci’s The Force of Reason, Mark Steyn’s America Alone, Nick Cohen’s What’s Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way, Paul Edward Gottfied’s After Liberalism, Mary Habek’s Knowing the Enemy, David Horowitz’s Radical Son, Robert Spencer’s Religion of Peace?, Dinesh D’Souza’s Letters to a Young Conservative, Lee Harris’ The Suicide of Reason, Walid Phares’ The War of Ideas: Jihadism Against Democracy, Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West, Rachel Ehrenfeld’s Funding Evil, Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofacism, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and John Bolton’s Surrender Is Not An Option.
These are some of the writers who presently occupy the Siege Perilous at the Round Table of international debate. And then we have the 2006 Euston Manifesto, sponsored by a group of British “socialist” intellectuals, with its call for “a progressive realignment” on the Left. While the Manifesto is weak in its understanding of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, does not come to terms with the fact that the Right is consistently defamed for the failures of the Left, and is rather too reliant on the abstractions and platitudes which seem to go with universalist ideation, its brief for a “fresh political realignment” and its principled opposition to “those on the Left who have actively spoken in support of the gangs of jihadists” offer a trickle of hope. It at least makes the attempt to pin the fantasies of the Left to the corkboard of the real world.
What I’m hoping is that it’s not too late to reassemble the task force of the Western mind. Thank the Lord for that cohort of excellent writers and thinkers like those I mentioned above who may—just may—succeed in countering such self-serving and ostentatious groups as Nelson Mandela’s Council of Elders which foregrounds a camarilla of professional appeasers of an anti-American and anti-Israeli stamp like Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson and Kofi Annan. Of course, the minions of the Left are legion. Their representatives are everywhere, but if I had to choose an emblematic figure—not necessarily the most potent or influential but one whose, let’s say, physical embodiment sums up the constituency—I would select that blowhard Ted Kennedy. He looks the part. He acts the part. He has the history. If we follow his lead, it’ll be Chappaquiddick all over again, only this time the rest of us will drown too. But, fortunately, there are still some wise heads, brave thinkers and powerful swimmers among us.
FP: A concluding word?
Solway: Let’s give it to Wallace Stevens from his poem “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters”:
It is here, in this bad, that we reach
The last purity of the knowledge of good.
Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's managing editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. He is also the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left and the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union (McGill-Queens University Press, 2002) and 15 Tips on How to be a Good Leftist. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted February 26, 2008, FrontPageMagazine.com